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Few voters paid attention to Saturday’s state Senate District 15 special election that saw emergency room nurse Molly Cook prevail over state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a result the veteran Democrat blames on himself.

He and his supporters got complacent, Johnson admitted Monday.

Now, the four-term state rep has less than three weeks to reverse Saturday’s defeat. The pair face off again in a May 28 Democratic primary runoff.

“It’s time to take the gloves off,” Johnson said, taking aim at Cook. “Obviously, your tricks have worked. Your lies invigorated your people. It engaged them and enraged them and they went to the polls.”

Saturday’s election was to fill Houston Mayor John Whitmire’s remaining Senate term, which runs through the end of the year. The election drew a miniscule turnout — about 2.25 percent of the district’s 725,000 voting-age residents. Those who did vote preferred Cook by a little more than 14 percentage points.

That represents a sharp turnaround from the March Democratic primary, when Johnson finished nearly 16 percentage points ahead of Cook but did not win enough votes to avoid a runoff against her.

In an interview Monday, Cook credited her success to her campaign staff’s efforts to remind voters of the Saturday election.

Johnson blamed his defeat on “poli-tricks,” pointing the finger at a series of mailers sent to voters by the Cook campaign that claimed Johnson is not trustworthy enough to defend Democratic values in the Senate.

One of the mailers claims Johnson has “caved to Greg Abbott too many times” and details perceived shortcomings in Johnson’s record on the issues of gun control, abortion rights, healthcare expansion and public school funding.

He also said he expects further political attacks in the weeks leading up to the primary runoff, specifically targeting his family life.

“I underestimated the impact,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when you tell a lie enough, in some peoples’ heads, it becomes the truth.”

Cook denied Johnson’s claim that her campaign is planning to roll out any negative campaigning about his family. A primary race is the most appropriate time for a “thoughtful and deliberate review” of Johnson’s record of service in the House, she added.

The primary runoff is expected to serve as a de facto general election for a four-year Senate term in the heavily Democratic district. If Cook wins, the brief term she won Saturday likely will be extended. If Johnson wins, Cook will need to vacate the seat by the end of the year.

They progressed to the runoff after Johnson finished in first and Cook second in a six-candidate field in the March 5 Democratic primary.

For months, Johnson has been framing himself as the race’s frontrunner, touting a long record of service on Houston City Council and in the state House of Representatives. He largely has avoided engaging in direct back-and-forth with Cook apart from an April 17 debate.

Now, he promises to confront the negative campaigning head on, teeing up what could be a contentious final few weeks leading to the runoff.

Cook, for her part, said she intends to continue the strategy that delivered Saturday’s victory and the title of senator-elect, striking a tone as the new frontrunner in declining to respond to Johnson’s comments.

“We are not taking a single thing for granted,” Cook said. “The district has placed a lot of trust in us, but that means they also trust me to go out and win on May 28.”

The win may give Cook a small boost in fundraising and enthusiasm among her supporters, although it is unlikely to have a large impact on the runoff, said Michael Adams, a professor of public affairs at Texas Southern University.

Johnson’s strategy prior to the special election was to present himself in the mold of Whitmire, a moderate Democrat known for dealmaking in a Republican-controlled Senate, Adams said.

“He started running a more centrist campaign thinking he could draw from the well of Whitmire’s supporters, and that wasn’t the case,” Adams said.

Adams also credited Cook’s multiple strong campaigns in the district, first running in 2022 running against Whitmire in the Democratic primary, for boosting her name ID despite not previously holding elected office.

Johnson also said he plans to respond to Cook through increased spending on digital advertisements, fact sheets about his record and canvassing efforts: “The gloves are off.”

The pair are neck-and-neck in fundraising, but Cook has outspent Johnson by $131,000 since the March 5 primary, according to the pair’s most recent available campaign finance reports.

The winner of the runoff will face Republican Joseph L. Trahan in the Nov. 5 general election.

Early voting begins May 20.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...